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Dos Passos: a life.

When he died in 1970 at the age of 74, John Roderigo Dos Passos had outlived his three most famous contemporaries, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. Together, the four writers form as remarkable a quartet of novelists as this nation has produced in a single generation. Of the four, the literary reputation of Dos Passos has certainly taken the most dramatic turn for the worse. Every so often we are informed that a Dos Passos revival is imminent, but that off-heralded rebirth has never come to Pass. The truth is that the eclipse of Dos Passos's reputation had begun even before his great trilogy, U.S.A., was published as a single volume in 1938. And by the time of this death, he was remembered mainly as the author of that work. The Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature accords Hemingway a six-page article signed by Philip Young; Faulkner receives almost as much attention in an article by Cleanth Brooks, while Fitzgerald and Dos Passos each receive an unsigned entry of less than a page.

Dos Passos is no better served by his latest biographer. Virginia Spencer Carr's Dos Passos: A Life is a dull book, which made me wonder why Carr chose to spend "seven years . . . immersed in the life and writings of John Dos Passos." On the other hand, Townsend Ludington's John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey, which was published four years ago, remains a first-rate work for anyone interested in Dos Passos or in the fascinating subject of his relationship to the politics of our century.

According to the conspiracy theory espoused by such conservatives as Carr and William F. Buckley Jr., Dos Passos's reputation declined because he moved from the left-wing radicalism of the 1920s and 1930s to the Goldwater conservatism of the 1960s. But that assessment is facile. After all, among the novelists whose reputation was made by radical critics was Celine, whose politics make Dos Passos's at their most reactionary look tepid. Dos Pasos sentimentalized Joe McCarthy; Celine praised Hitler. Dos Passos might have been nervous about Jews in Hollywood and the theater when he wrote Most Likely to Succeed, in 1952; Celine called for what was to become the Final Solution in Bagatelles pour une massacre, in 1937.

A more reasonable explanation for Dos Passos's literary fate is that his work began to sound, as Edmund Wilson wrote him in a letter, "like some of the messages from Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde that are supposed to be transmitted through mediums." Wilson was writing about Dos Passos's politics, but the remark is equally applicable to almost all the fiction he published after U.S.A.'s concluding volume, The Big Money, appeared in 1936.

After rereading a number of his novels, I find that it is the weaknesses that seem endemic even to his best writing that account for the failure to revive enthusiasm for his work. It is certainly hard to understand why, in 1938, Jean-Paul Sartre went so far as to label him "the greatest writer of our time." One wonders what Sartre made of that assessment by, say, 1968.

It remains difficult to think of Dos Passos as other than a political novelist. More than any of his contemporaries, he embraced the novel as a means to persuade--and to persuade in a political direction. A steak of political didacticism can be found even in Three Soldiers (1921) and Manhattan Transfer (1925), his best books. He conceived of the novelist as an "architect of history," a view that many readers now probably find quaint. Whatever his political changes, Dos Passos remains in many ways the quintessentially American writer.

Even his life seems characteristically American, although it was certainly unusual. Dos Passos was the illegitimate son of John Randolph Dos Passos and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison. His father was one of the most successful corporate lawyers of his day, and in 1891 earned a fee of a half-million dollars for setting up the Sugar Trust for H.O. Havermeyer, reputedly the highest legal fee paid in America to that time. John Randolph Dos Passos was the son of a Portuguese shoemaker who had fled the island of Madeira, possibly after stabbing a man to death. Like so many children of immigrants, the elder Dos Passos was a passionate advocate of the American legal system, the capitalist economic system and the Anglo-Saxon spiritual system. A prolific writer himself, he outdid Kipling in his praise of Anglo-Saxon virtues. In The Anglo-Saxon Century and the Unification of the English-speaking People, he called for "the successful Anglicization of the world." Dos Pasos's mother had originally been married to a dissolute descendant of James Madison. She appears to have been an able, independent woman. After her husband deserted her, she went to work in her father's real estate office, and in 1883, the 29-year-old Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison met and became the mistress of the 38-year-old John Randolph Dos Passos. Thirteen years later, she bore him a son in a hotel room in Chicago. Because Dos Passos's wife, Mary Dyckman Hays Dos Passos, was a Catholic and the daughter of wealthy New York socialites who had helped him rise in the world of law, divorce was out of the question. The lovers could not marry until after Mary Hays's death, in 1910.

Dos Passos knew about the scandal of his birth. In U.S.A, and later in the autobiographical Chosen Country (1951), his father is portrayed as strong but distant, the quixotic authority who must be pleased. At Choate, where his father, still disguised as his guardian, sent him in 1907, he was registered as John Roderigo Madison. He did not become John Roderigo Dos Passos until he entered Harvard University, in 1912. It is highly probable that both Dos Passos's early radicalism and the misanthropy of his early fiction derive from his relationship with his father, who was loving and energetic, but made furtive by convention. The two would meet in European and American hotels, where the boy spent a good many of his early years, but until Dos Passos was a senior at Choate, he did not have a father in any public sense.

At Harvard, Dos Passos was numbered among the esthetes, but he also appears to have discovered the disposessed during those years. Whether his sympathy for the downtrodden grew out of psychological insecurity or was simply a young man's radical fling, his views, as well as his experience as an ambulance driver during World War I, belong to the coming-of-age of an entire literary generation. His reputation was founded on what he did with those experiences in One Man's Initiation (1920), in Three Soldiers and in Manhattan Transfer. Three Soldiers, Dos Passos's war novel, and Manhattan Transfer, his New York novel, both hold up surprisingly well. The former has always seemed to me a better evocation of World War I than either Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms or E.E. Cummings's The Enormous Room.

Dos Passos was prolific throughout the 1920s. Chronicling the decade, he also helped establish The New Masses, led the fight to free Sacco and Vanzetti, helped found The New Playwrights Theatre and traveled extensively. While writing the novels that were to make up U.S.A., Dos Passos worked as a labor reporter for The New Republic. (He was considered so far to the left that the editors there refused to allow him to cover the Gastonia textile strike of 1929.) Ironically, the only successful novel he wrote after 1936, Midcentury, is perhaps the most vitriolic attack on organized labor ever penned by an American novelist. Written in 1961, ostensibly tensibly out of Dos Passos's concern for the plight of the rank and file union man who was being kicked around by the union bosses," it is a bleak, even despairing, picture os American life halfway through the twentieth century.

That book is indicative of the extent to which Dos Passos had come to embrace the political right. The heroic figures of U.S.A. are Charles Steinmetz, Eugene V. Debs and Thorstein Veblen; here the heroic figures are Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Senator John McClellan. Dos Passos, as Townsend Ludington writes, lived a life "noteworthy for its integrity." But his anticommunism grew so passionate and single-minded that he ultimately became enmeshed in a self-delusion that was quite simply amazing. By the 1960s, he was ready and willing to excuse virtually anyone as long as that person's anticommunist credentials were in order. In Century's Ebb, a novel published posthumously in 1975, his vision of patriotic heroism embraces figures such as Martin Dies, Joe McCarthy and J. Parnell Thomas. His support for Barry Goldwater in 1964 was quasi-religious. And had he lived, one suspects he would have found much to admire in Jesse Helms (though Dos Passos distrusted religious fundamentalism) and Roberto d'Aubuisson. It is one thing to write for The National Review, as Dos Passos did; it is quite another for a grown man to find his view of reality confirmed there.

Dos Passos had already become suspicious of the communists by the time he finished The Big Money. He nevertheless continued to find Marxism a useful tool for examining society until he went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Like Orwell, he rebelled against a world in which truth was mandated by imprimatur rather than events. When his good friend the socialist Juan Robles was murdered by the communists--a murder that was implicitly defended by those, like Hemingway, who wanted to stay in political fashion--his break with the orthodox communist left became final. As the 1930s came to an end, Dos Passos arrived at a political position similar to that of his friends Edmund Wilson and James T. Farrell: he became an independent socialist. But neither Wilson nor Farrell ever made a comparable move to the extreme right. Indeed, over the next three decades, Wilson questioned his friend's politics in letter after letter. Dos Passos's politics, he insisted, had turned him into "a hot-air artist"; by supporting Goldwater, he had aligned himself with "one of the biggest asses in our asinine country." But Wilson also recognized Dos Passos's strange political consistency: liberals had always been his enemies. In 1964, he wrote Dos Passos, "You've been railing against 'the liberals' all your life. . . . You used to assail this myth from the radical side and now you assail it from the conservative."

After U.S.A., Dos Passos published nine novels. He also published a memoir, books of reportage, popular histories and travel books. The decline in his power as a novelist should be evident to anyone who reads the novels he wrote during the last three decades of his life. Other than Midcentury and perhaps Chosen Country, they are mediocre, even embarrassing at times. For example, Most Likely to Succeed (1954) and The Great Days (1958) are sloppy and overwhelmed by the author's didacticism. In U.S.A., the narrative was politicized, but it was not overwhelmed.

To claim that Dos Passos left his talent on the banks of the Ebro in 1937 is simply the left's version of a critical conspiracy theory. The truth is that his novelistic weaknesses simply grew more apparent as his politics grew more reactionary. What he achieved in U.S.A. was all he was capable of achieving. He never had the ability to create truly memorable characters. Even in U.S.A., most of the invented characters seem two-dimensional. And as he grew older, his dialogue became increasingly cliched.

By the time his second trilogy, District of Columbia, was finished in 1949, his deficiencies as a novelist were clear. Even Chosen Country, which met with a positive critical reception, is a failure. It is interesting to look at it alongside Across the River and into the Trees, generally considered Hemingway's poorest novel, which was published around the same time. If anything, Chosen Country is a worse performance because Hemingway at least manages to salvage something from his aging-warrior fantasy by the skill with which he handles his Venetian atmosphere. But in his autobiographical novel, Dos Passos simply binds his characters to his thesis--the "choosing" of America and its institutions--and doesn't let go. Despite the reader's knowledge that Dos Passos is telling us about himself, about Hemingway (who was incensed at the portrait os himself as George Elbert Warner) and about other notable men and women, the characters seem terribly wooden. And there is no sense of at mosphere to rescue them.

What was it that gave Dos Passos his considerable repuatation in the 1930s? Even a contemporary critic who has fewer reservations about his novels than I do would not, I assume, number him today among the major novelists of our century. The only answer I can offer is that the Dos Passos who wrote Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. incorporated literary modernism in his work with an ease no other writer could match. His books had the look and feel of modern masterpieces. And he was an easy master to read. Compare reading U.S.A. with reading Ulysses or The Death of Virgil or even The Sound and the Fury. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out in an essay written more than thirty years ago, Dos Passos appears to make demands on his readers without really making demands. A reader is not forced to work at a Dos Passos novel. And none of the readers of U.S.A. are required, as McLuhan noted, "to have much more reading agility than the reader of the daily press."

Like the novels of Thomas Wolfe, Dos Passos's novels were best read when one was young. They offered the youthful reader the illusion that his own life had been touched by the modern. The appeal of U.S.A. was not political but esthetic. Dos Passos captured what then seemed an advanced sensibility and placed it in the service of what then seemed an advanced writing technique. His politics, even for someone who sympathized with them, were beside the point. What one valued in U.S.A. was its modernism, which was easy to absorb, and its pessimism, which seemed generational. In Dos Passos, the young reader confronted a writer who insisted that his was the real America. Both Mary French and "Meester Veelson" existed, and U.S.A. made them accessible. What the deeply conservative Midcentury has in common with U.S.A. is a strategy of attitudes. The idols changed, but the appeal was intended to remain the same. Dos Passos was still for "the little man" and against "machine civilization"; he thrust "individual heroism" against a hostile environment; he stood for "values" in American life. The little man went from being a labor organizer to one who struggled against domination by unions; the heroes became generals and senators instead of labor radicals and scientists; the values now upheld an absolutely untrammeled individualism instead of the possibility of a cooperative commonwealth. And through it all, Dos Passos insisted that he had not changed.

What holds up today in U.S.A. is Dos Passos's eye for American life. There is a nervous energy to the trilogy that remains appealing. Things are happening to the country, if not to the characters, in the novel. The "Newsreel" sequences capture us in a college of headlines; the "Camera Eye" sequences project the events of Dos Passos's own life onto a broader canvas; the biographies present portraits of individual Americans that command our attention still. Everything works--except the narrative. The first biography in U.S.A. is of Debs, and it is done in a prose that is consciously weighty, almost biblical--just the right tone, the reader feels, for a secular saint's life. The last is of Samuel Insull, the Chicago utility magnate and embezzler, and here the prose is ironic, an example of Dos Passos's turning capitalism itself on the spit. Through such biographies, Dos Passos tried to "organize the chaotic whole of American life into an artistic pattern."

As he grew older, Dos Passos became less and less patient with the restrictions the novel imposed. He had always viewed the novelist's task in large terms, and it is easy to understand the attraction that history held for him. Despite the "Camera Eye" sequences of U.S.A. and despite the autobiographical Chosen Country, he was never really comfortable writing about himself. The histories that he wrote during his last thirty years live as the bulk of his fiction from that time does not. In writing history he was no less conservative than he was in writing fiction, but he was less ideological, less hampered by his theses. His view remained a novelist's view. If that made for overly simplified history, it also made for powerful storytelling. His histories are, in fact, his homage to the Anglo-Saxon spirit. He himself embraced this nation and its past with a passionate dedication. He had gone from being an outsider to becoming a Virginia squire. As a consequence, his books on Jefferson and the Founding fathers possess vitality and authority. And they are better written than most of his novels.

Dos Passos's best work as a novelist was structured by his sense of history. It is a sense he shared with Faulkner, a greater novelist, who was able to create character out of his argument with the past. In the prebellum South, Faulkner found an enduring myth that was to feed his genius. Dos Passos sought the same thing--first in the conscious proletariat and then in the Founding Fathers, who had created America's "storybook democracy." Even this reflects his distance from us. We do not expect such a passion for history in our novelists today. Other than Gore Vidal, I cannot think of an important American novelist for whom history is a living source of material and inspiration.

To reread Dos Passos is to recognize that he was the victim of time, not of the politics of his critics. He was never the major writer so many of his contemporaries in the 1920s and 1930s claimed he was. His work has certainly dated more quickly and more completely than the work of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Faulkner. And yet there remains something enduring about his best work, as there remains something appealing about the man himself. Three Soldiers, Manhatlan Transfer, U.S.A., even Midcentury, speak of how a writer can build his time, can create an entire country, acting as an "architect of history." Dos Passos's great subject was the United States in the twentieth century. And it is, I suppose, suitably ironic that he was a casualty of that century, a casualty of his age as well as of literature.
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Author:Kriegel, Leonard
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 10, 1984
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